Monday, April 21, 2014

The real Manmohan Singh story is affirmed; now we need the real Sonia Gandhi story

It is easy to say that two new books have "betrayed" Manmohan Singh. Sanjay Baru was a confidant of the Prime Minister while P.C. Parakh was Coal Ministry Secretary when the coal scam scarred the country. But their books are not political exercises. They are recordings of information by professionals who found themselves witnesses to action. Books by such insiders -- one by former Comptroller & Auditor General Vinod Rai is eagerly awaited -- are the stuff of history and would be so hailed by civilised society.

Baru's pages are essentially empathetic. He cites chapter and verse to show how Sonia Gandhi often usurped the powers of the Prime Minister. Parakh shows how passivity can also be culpability at times. Overall, we can see that Manmohan Singh was not always a passive puppet in the hands of a scheming Sonia Gandhi. He could be quite scheming himself when an issue dear to his heart came up. The passing of the US nuclear treaty is the most quoted example. Almost all parties including sections of his own were against it, but the Prime Minister stuck to his guns and had his way. So did he with FDI in retail which was, and still is, opposed by most states. He used craftiness, guile and every ounce of power at his disposal to push these measures through. Recent reports suggest that it was Manmohan Singh's willpower that allowed field trial of GM (genetically modified) crops in defiance of prevalent government policy, public opinion, experts' advice and even the legal rub of the matter being before the Supreme Court. It cannot be an accident that all three subjects are America's core policy priorities in India.

America wants US equipment suppliers to be not accountable if something goes wrong with a nuclear installation (like Union Carbide refused to be accountable for the Bhopal gas disaster). FDI in retail is unacceptable to many for fear that foreign monopolies will disrupt India's grassroot economics. GM crops trials have come to mean domination by companies like Monsanto. Seeds technologies developed by India's own agricultural research institutes are ignored. Manmohan Singh chose to dismiss the warnings of molecular scientist Pushpa Bhargava who told him in 2008 that "India would cease to be a free country if its agriculture is brought under the control of foreign multinational companies". This is a powerful Prime Minister who knows how to get what he wants if he wants it badly enough.

So, how come he did not want to fight corruption badly enough? The biggest scams in the history of India unfolded under his nose, but he didn't seem to care. Even when the economy took a nosedive, the great economist in him didn't seem to care. Did he ignore corruption because the highest in the land were neck-deep in it? Was he under pressure from family and friends to keep the chair for the trappings that went with it? The questions that rose around Manmohan Singh wrecked his reputation.

Baru and Parakh have merely provided confirmatory details of what was public knowledge. Parakh said, for example, that Manmohan Singh was in favour of auctioning coal blocks, but didn't care when "junior coal ministers" Shibu Soren and Dasari Narayan Rao overruled him. Similarly Baru explains how the PM lost his importance when the PMO was stuffed by Sonia Gandhi's flatterers -- M.K.Narayanan who kept friend and foe in line by announcing "I have a file on you", and Pulok Chatterjee to whom India was the same as the Gandhis.

What is needed, for India's sake, is a factual professionally written insider view on Sonia Gandhi's handling of power, how she turned India into her private fiefdom, how great leaders became her courtiers. No political aide is man enough to do it, and she is not woman enough to let an independent person do it -- like V.S. Naipaul let Patrick French do his "authorised" biography, though he didn't approve of the book in the end. But we shall not lose heart. That book will one day be written. India has a way of prevailing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Hate, desperation vitiated our campaigning: We need to worry about our tomorrows

By all accounts this election campaign has been shriller, more aggressive and more hate-filled than previous campaigns. There were excesses on all sides. All players seemed driven by a newfound desperation. The BJP, emboldened by popular disgust with the Congress as well as by the impact of a dramatic public speaker, was on a now-or-never drive. The Congress, saddled with a singularly undramatic leadership, was fighting with its back to the wall. Provincial leaders, frantically seeking ways to convert their localised strength into national relevance, were straining to catch every straw in the wind. Where will these passions take us after the results are known? Despondency leading to adventurism among those who missed the bus? Brazenness among those who got past the post? Our tomorrows have never been more uncertain.

The hatreds that marked the campaign were the most worrying. For a while it looked as though the animosities would be confined to the Andhra region where opportunist politicians set brother against brother. But it did not take long for the familiar threat, communalism, to raise its head. Scholars tell us that communalism is not native to India, that co-existence and cooperation among communities were the norm in the land, visible to this day in sacred centres like Varanasi, Ajmer and Sabarimala. Wrote historian Bipin Chandra in his Communalism: A Primer: " Communalism was the false consciousness of the historical process of the last 150 years because, objectively, no real conflict between the interests of Hindus and Muslims existed".

Don't say that in UP which saw what was this season's worst eruption of communalism. The Muzaffarnagar riot of August-September was an instigated one, as always. The embers of that fire never really died down because the state Government was seen as an instigator, not a healer. The ugliness of the confrontation peaked in the final stages of the campaign when the BJP's flag-bearer in UP, Amit Shah, called upon Jats to "avenge" the humiliation they had suffered. It was an irresponsible statement by a politician known as a communalist and the Election Commission was forced to take cognizance of his violation of the code.

Other displays of the communal card seemed innocuous by comparison. Sonia Gandhi visiting the Shahi Imam was "rabid communalism" as Narendra Modi put it. The rabidity no doubt increased as the Imam issued a public call to the faithful to vote for the Congress and ensure that secular votes were not divided. Narendra Modi for his part filled his Varanasi rally with symbolisms of the unmistakable kind. The backdrop on the dais was decorated with pictures of temples and the revered Dashashwamedh Ghat. Three replicas of Kashi Vishwanath Temple stood out. Auspicious conch shells blew as Modi climbed the steps to the stage and he began with words calculated to stir devotional sentiments: "I have come from the land of Somnath to seek the blessings of Baba Vishwanath". Bollywood's best screenplay writer could not have put it better.

After such a show, the BJP's manifesto proclamation to build the Ram temple in Ayodhya looked like an anticlimax. Even Acharya Satyendra Das, head priest of the makeshift Ram Janmabhoomi temple, said it was wrong to link the Ram Mandir to elections. Mahant Damodar Das, priest of the Hanumangarhi temple, said politicians were fuelling an old issue "just for political gain". Obviously Ayodhya is not meant for Ayodhyans; it is a tool of politics.

Like God himself. Nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's famous proclamation that "God is dead. God remains dead" only applied to Europe. In our parts God was ever on the ascendance. But let's not forget that Nietzsche had seen the Catholic Church's dictatorial political rule in Europe. That gave him a perspective that was universal. "Those who once filled the ranks of the totalitarian clergy would become totalitarian politicians. The will to power would produce a new kind of messiah, uninhibited by any religious sanctions whatever, and with an unappeasable appetite for controlling mankind. The end of the old order... was a summons to such gangster-statesman to emerge".

How did he know so much about us?

Monday, April 7, 2014

One group has already lost the elections: How leadership fails the Communists

The winners of this election are anybody's guess. But the losers are known: The Communists. That is a pity because space is lying wide open for an alternative to the conservative Congress of vested interests and the ultra-conservative BJP of militant Hindutva. The Left was best suited to fill that void, but lack of vision and inability to change with the times have made it impossible. Indians, eager to escape from the devil of the Congress and the deep sea of the BJP clutch at straws like Aam Aadmi because the Left has managed to achieve a remarkable level of irrelevance.

Not that the CPM as Big Brother of the Left Front has been inactive. Their talk of a Third Front fell flat. Their attempt to form an alliance in Tamil Nadu turned farcical. They have stitched a Progressive Forum to contest eleven seats in Narendra Modi's Gujarat. They will not win one. Even in West Bengal and Kerala, their pockets of strength, they are no longer what they used to be. Are we watching the sunset?

The communists have no one to blame but themselves for their plight. To begin with, they were never a united force. They shifted their policy positions often, took unpopular decisions on key issues and were constantly in-fighting leading to the great split into the CPM and the CPI. B. T. Ranadive thought that independence was the ideal time to launch a revolution and started the Telengana People's Armed Struggle; it would have been a joke but for the lives lost. S. A. Dange supported Indira Gandhi's Emergency.

While the party failed to set down roots in areas it considered fertile -- Andhra, Punjab, Maharashtra where it had strong trade union muscles -- it fared better in West Bengal and Kerala. One reason for its success in Bengal was that the leaders were shrewed strategists who remained invisible while pushing the suave, foreign-educated Jyoti Basu to the front. In Kerala the party benefited from some of the most talented political leaders India ever saw such as A.K.Gopalan and E.M.S. Nambuthiripad.

Obviously leadership matters. And this is where the party has suffered a serious setback in recent years. Where erudition, dialectical materialism and political calculations once reigned, strong-arm tactics and the politics of violence have gained ground. It is now known that behind the 30-year Communist rule in Bengal, there was an element of aggression and vendetta instilling fear among the people. Despite Mamata Bannerjee's autocratic misrule, the communists are not gaining ground because people seem to be afraid of them. In Kerala the argumentative wisdom of EMS has been replaced by violence and murder especially in Malabar, the homeground of today's CPM leadership. By the established see-saw pattern of Kerala, the ruling UDF should take a drubbing from the LDF in this election. But that is unlikely to happen. A CPM leader who rebelled and formed a rival party was recently murdered in a brutal manner and the feeling is widespread that the party leadership was aware of the murder plans. The dissensions within the party are of an unprecedented nature.

In earlier days the party's central leadership in Delhi often acted as an uplifting influence on state units. The last General Secretary, Harkishen Singh Surjeet, was respected by leaders of other parties too for his abilities as a negotiator and bridge-builder. The present chief, Prakash Karat, elicits no such respect. In fact powerful state leaders in Kerala and Bengal are for all practical purposes beyond his command. On critical issues, like the murder in Kerala, Karat backs the leaders unmindful of the negative impressions it spreads among a knowledgeable and politically sophisticated public. Karat represents a generation of eggheads that moved directly from university to party leadership. The absence of experience with the masses is all too evident.

It is nobody's loss if Prakash Karat and his violence-prone comrades become mere footnotes in history. But in an India that is desperately in need of a third alternative, the collapse of the Left will have implications that go beyond the ineptitude of a few footnotes.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Our leaders ignore the rules of democracy and play by religion, caste and roguery

Politicians' shenanigans are getting bolder and nastier by the day. The Narendra Modi personality cult is raised to the level of equating him with the revered Mahadev himself (Har, har, Modi!); P. Chidambaram threatens to turn Gandhian and devote himself to "serving my people" in Sivaganga; Sharad Pawar shows no shame in asking his followers to break the law and vote twice; Dhananjay Munde boasts that he organised one lakh bogus votes for his uncle and BJP leader Gopinath Munde. And all these patriots are roaming free, ready to lead our country to glory.

Serial roguery of this kind hits the headlines. Less noticed, yet more serious, is the growing religious polarisation with casteism assuming new dimensions. It is true that in the current season Varun Gandhi is not offering to cut off the palms of Muslims. Nor is Akbaruddin Owasi bragging about his followers' ability to finish off 100 crore Hindus in 15 minutes. But the Abominable Religionists are still at large. Congress candidate Imran Masood promises to "chop Narendra Modi into pieces". Kerala's Christian priests instigate their flocks to revolt against restrictions on big-ticket development in the Western Ghats; one of them warned of a Jallianwalla Baug massacre in the hills.

In states where caste has been a determining factor in elections, there are new alignments triggering new upheavals. In Uttar Pradesh's urban centres Brahmins were traditionally seen as a BJP votebank. "Highclass Brahmins" who represented key constituencies for long, such as Murlimanohar Joshi and Kalraj Mishra, were edged out this time for the convenience of Narendra Modi and friends. UP Brahmins are seething with anger.

In Bihar Brahmins and Bhumihars are angry because they see the BJP's ruling clique ignoring them and favouring the Backward castes. In important constituencies ranking BJP leaders raised the banner of revolt. They saw a conspiracy in Backwards who opposed Narendra Modi early on gaining the upperhand now. Their argument, which applies to the Hindi belt in general, is that if the BJP ignores its traditional upper-caste votebanks, it will lose more than it gains.

In Haryana half the BJP's candidates are turncoats from other parties, picked for their caste value. In Rajasthan the age-old rivalry between Rajputs and Jats has turned unusually bitter with the BJP's denial of ticket to Jaswant Singh, a Rajput and a party veteran. The five-party rainbow alliance the BJP forged in Tamil Nadu includes the aggressive Vanniyar-caste lobby, the PMK. This party was involved in the modern Romeo & Juliet tragedy that shocked the world last year. (Ilavarasan, a dashing Dalit, and Divya, a charming Vanniyar fell deeply in love. After they married Ilavarasan was killed and the Dharmapuri constituency was split down the middle along caste lines). Dalits today say they would vote by caste this time.

There is evidently a historical shift on the Hindutva front. Founded by Chitpavan Brahmins, the Sangh parivar has been a Brahmin-led movement all along. This is the first time that the BJP is stepping down from the upper levels to accommodate Backwards in leadership positions. (In the 1990s UP upper castes accepted Kalyan Singh, OBC, as the leader of a winning combination. But it seemed more of an experiment and did not last long).

Now that the BJP is the vehicle of a Ghanchi caste (OBC) leader, is the shift from the Upper echelons a calculated move by Narendra Modi? The new combinations he is promoting are not entirely new; Mayawati had demonstrated the potential of "social coalition" between Dalits and Brahmins. It was of course an empty slogan, intended to benefit neither Dalits nor Brahmins, but herself, but it worked for her in the caste-obsessed culture in which she operated. Is Modi trying similar coalitions with similar intentions? The best answer to that is another question. Moving the draft Constitution for approval in 1948, Dr. Ambedkar asked: " In addition to our enemies in the form of Castes and Creeds, we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing Political Creeds. Will Indians place the country above their Creed or their Creed above the country?"

Monday, March 24, 2014

Will Modi Gandhi Kejriwal look up the map and note that Crimea is not too far

In our obsession with the elections, we've lost track of the world. As it happens, the US is "just three steps away from war with Russia", as an American strategist put it. A Russian commentator put it thus: "Russia is the only country in the world capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash". Got the picture?

War won't -- or shall we say, may not -- happen. Not because leaders love peace, but because the prospect of being reduced to ash is all too real for more than one country. Nevertheless, it is a finger-on-the-button confrontation. The stakes in Crimea/Ukraine are high and the passions explosive. Russia sees Anglo-Saxons trying to encircle it militarily by absorbing Ukraine into the Eurocentric (anti-Russia) NATO alliance. NATO sees Russia using muscle power to annex nearby territories and thereby resurrecting the old Soviet empire.

The "annexing" of Crimea is a fait accompli. A referendum saw 96.6 percent of the people saying yes to joining the Russian Federation. Within two days Vladimir Putin signed a formal treaty making Crimea a part of Russia. Crimea declared the ruble as a second currency to Ukraine's hryvnia. It even switched to Moscow time which is two hours ahead of Ukrainian time. Putin's longish speech at the Kremlin ceremony was full of emotional references to Crimea's place in the hearts and minds of Russians and how the West, especially America, "cheated us again and again, made decisions behind our back [and deployed] military infrastructure at our borders".

Those were strong words.What we see is a return to the hostile mindsets of the Cold War era. Russia saw the recent violent upheavals in Ukraine as a Western manoeuvre to effect a regime change in the country, replacing Russia-friendly leaders with Russia-haters. For the West, checkmating Russia is central to its security agenda; Britain's Foreign Secretary described the Crimean crisis as "the most serious test of European security in the 21st century". For Russia, keeping Crimea is a historical obligation and an existential necessity.

A part of the Russian Federation until 1954, Crimea was "gifted" to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev who rose in the communist hierarchy through the Ukranian party apparatus. (Some say he was an ethnic Ukranian, as Stalin was an ethnic Georgian). Russia's only warm-water naval base is on Crimea's Black Sea coast. Without Crimea, Russia will cease to be a strategic power. Without a friendly Ukraine and a friendly Georgia, Russia will cease feeling secure. So Russia will do what it takes to consolidate its neighbourhood, just as the US has done for years in Central American countries. If war is ruled out, the West can do precious little.

Are these developments of any concern to India? Of course yes. Firstly, this is a new global Great Game and there is no way a player of India's size can stay in the margins. More importantly, the evolving strategic face-off is between the Atlantic West and what Russia is projecting as Eurasia which, naturally, would include India and China.

For the record, both India and China have told Russia to take the path of negotiation, respect international law, etc. In fact, though, both have indicated support to Russia. India took the clear position that "Russia has legitimate interests in the Ukraine developments", as National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon worded it. Putin later had a personal chat with Manmohan Singh.

This is a good time for India to take a hard look at its diplomatic equations. Manmohan Singh's pro-American tilt has always been one-sided causing economic loss to India (by following American diktat on Iranian oil, for example) and inviting diplomatic ridicule (by unilaterally giving privileges to US consuls in India while Indian consuls in the US are humiliated). Moscow, on the other hand, has stood by India on critical issues, like technology transfer for example. Perhaps Putin and the Eurasian idea can also help ease the relations between India and China. And Japan waits. Opportunity is knocking at India's doors. But who is there to seize the moment? Modi Gandhi Kejriwal?

Amar Akbar Antony had more chutzpah.